by Doug Carpenter


Close, But No e-Cigar

Over the years, Baby Boomers have been called a lot of things, not all of them complimentary. But we understood. After all, when you spend as long at the top of the social pecking order as we did, it kind of comes with the territory.

Besides, admit it or not, we liked the attention — if for no other reason than that it reinforced a message so many of us received from our doting and more-permissive-than-theirs-ever-were parents. It served to validate a singularly self-edifying belief clearly shared by large numbers of our demographics-dominating Boomer brothers and sisters. That we were special. Chosen. A generation of destiny.

Having filled us with this what-could-possibly-go-wrong supersized sense of self-worth, society promptly proceeded to chip away at it by giving us a persistently hard time over pretty much everything. What we said. What we did. The music we listened to. Even the clothes we wore. [Sometimes especially the clothes we wore.]

Many among us, for example, were declared “non-conformists,” no doubt for behaviors we largely adopted specifically if not consciously to get ourselves noticed. [As if the “turn it up to 11” volume level at which we played our music and spoke our minds hadn’t already sealed that deal.]

Of course, when you’re part of crowds as big as a generation our size inevitably produced, standing out from them probably would’ve been a lot easier if so many of us hadn’t chosen to always wear basically the same thing that all the rest of us were wearing. [Apparently conforming with other non-conformists isn’t conformity. Who knew?]

The way we dressed also got a lot of us dismissed as “hippies,” a term that was often as much an expression of philosophical disagreement as fashion disapproval. “Peacenik,” on the other hand — by far a more locked-and-loaded label — was usually lobbed at us from the other side of an angry political divide.

And that, in itself, is actually kind of ironic. After all, who could’ve imagined that one day both draft-resistant liberals and love-it-or-leave-it conservatives would end up being conscripted together to fight in society’s “wars” on everything from poverty, drugs and homelessness to illiteracy and, ultimately, terror?

Had we let it, judgmentalism like that could easily have harshed our mellow. But for a “happening” generation like ours, that just wasn’t going to happen. Our best defense, we realized, was simply to “keep it real,” responding unapologetically that — as 1970s TV variety show host Flip Wilson’s sassy alter ego Geraldine Jones used to put it — “What you see is what you get.”

And as an “I don’t have to answer to you” justification not only for our generation but for society as a whole, it worked pretty well. At least, that is, until people began making the unpleasant discovery that the “what” that they “got” was not the “what” that they had expected or even asked for.

If you didn’t notice, though, don’t feel bad. You weren’t supposed to. They went to great lengths to maintain the illusion that everything was exactly as it appeared. It is, however, perfectly understandable if the idea that you fell for yet another variation on the old “bait and switch” leaves you feeling slightly queasy and possibly even a little paranoid.

Because it wasn’t that long ago that people would take measurable pleasure in getting what they used to call “the genuine article.” Today, unfortunately, the presence of words like “real,” “genuine” and “authentic” provides virtually no assurance that what they’re describing will, in fact, be any of those things.

Even worse, the manipulative marketers who use them to create those enticing but ultimately unmet expectations of quality do so with a level of shamelessness exceeded only by the profits they rake in doing it, frequently on the sale of items whose big-ticket prices mask tiny-ticket value. These days, what you get is often only what you think you see.

Take the clothing industry. Belts, shoes and purses labeled “Genuine Simulated Leather,” which were once relegated to cut-rate discount stores, are now produced and sold by top-name fashion brands through major retailers at unjustifiably-high prices that make them — and the people who designed them — accessories to what amounts to retail robbery.

There’s obviously little point in asking the awkward but unavoidable question “How gullible do they think we are?” when the answer is in the bag you’re carrying out of the store. And it wouldn’t be so bad if all that we were out as a result of being fooled was a few bucks. But the actual price is considerably higher.

Perhaps it would be better if we focused on cutting our losses going forward, concentrating on the subtler ways we get “taken” every day and the things that are taken from us that are far more important than money. Things, for example, like our self-respect — just one of the commodities increasingly imperiled by this age of “false equivalents” that we now find ourselves mired in.

The rise of social phenomena like “fake news” and “alternative facts” is just the fat-free, Splenda-sweetened icing on a cultural cake made with soy flour, Egg Beaters and I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter! [They probably also used artificial vanilla extract and that waxy, brown carob stuff that pretends to be chocolate, but it’s best not to dwell on such thoughts.]

Just like all those replacement ingredients turn what could be an appetite- and soul-satisfying eating experience into a self-conscious exercise in dietary damage control, substituting expedience for integrity has turned the lives of many a Baby Boomer into something their younger selves would neither recognize nor accept.

How many of the so-called “non-materialists” of our generation were unable to resist the lure of pinstripe suits and power bow blouses after rocking tie-dye t-shirts through their tradition-trashing teens? I don’t know. How many Yuppies did it take to plan a trip to a free love and sitar music festival in Big Sur? [Two. One to say “Where?” and another to say “Why?”]

It all started, I think, the first time we “settled.” That moment in each of our lives when, instead of holding out for what we really wanted by drawing on what is perhaps our most powerful Boomer asset — the strength of will that helped change the course of a nation and the shape of the world, we caved.

Some of the compromises that we’ve made I can’t really quarrel with. The Beatles had been broken up for a decade when Beatlemania [...“Not the real thing but an amazing simulation!”...] began touring in 1980. I get it. When you’re suffering from an advanced case of Lennon-McCartney withdrawal, you can only let it be for so long.

Thinking about some of our generation’s other choices, though, leaves me anything but glad all over. Like the single, “of a certain age” Boomers who, feeling like they’ve been waiting forever for “Mr. Right” to come along, decide one night that maybe “Mr. Right Now” will do [...hoping, I’m sure, that he doesn’t turn out to be “Mr. Goodbar.”]

It seems, in fact, that a lot of the compromise choices we’ve made potentially impact our physical as well as our emotional wellbeing. Like becoming blindly dependent on the almost endless parade of supposed-to-be-but-really-aren’t safe artificial sweeteners and “fat-free” almost everythings instead of simply moderating our consumption of naturally-healthy foods.

And substituting battery-powered e-cigarettes for the now-known-to-be-horribly-unhealthy set-fire-to-them-in-your-mouth kind only to find that puffing electronically-produced “vapors” can apparently make you sick in a whole pack of ways that the tobacco industry never dreamed of [...but I can only imagine were praying for like crazy.]

The thing that I think scares me the most here is what the end game for all this might be. Because every time we settle for something less than what we really want, the less incentive they have for even trying to give it to us. And when that happens, I guarantee you that the closest you’ll get to real, genuine, authentic satisfaction will be, at best, an amazing simulation.

© 2017 Doug Carpenter

Back to After 50 Home Page